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Friday, September 6, 2013

Albums 10 — Stony Landscapes (1994-GIA)

You

You 
You visit the earth
You make it fruitful
You make it bloom
You
Your rivers overflow
Spilling to earth in the rain
You call forth the grain.

To you belong the sowing and the harvest,
To you alone the rainfall and the sun
We will praise your name
You have staked your claim
On the fierce and stony landscape of the human heart.

("Psalm 65: You" by Rory Cooney © 1994 GIA Publications)

(Note: excerpts of all the songs can be heard in the iTunes window at the bottom of the page.)

Stony Landscapes was the last recording we made in Phoenix. Lots of things in life were in transition. It was late summer and fall of 1993, and in January of 1994 I left Phoenix to take the job I currently hold at St. Anne's in Barrington. 

As a collection, there's not much that holds Stony Landscapes together, but on listening to it again recently, I am struck by the beauty of it, if I can be permitted what sounds like self-praise. Those of you who know the process, though, know that the beauty of the recording is less the work of the songwriter than of the producer and performers, who take the music from the page and turn it from an idea into sound waves, something that we can experience as human beings in a meaningful way. Gary's selection of instruments and voices and microphones all work together to provide a really engaging listening experience. Terry's warm vocals and the choir's enthusiastic interpretations of the songs make the ancient feelings of psalms, canticles, and the Exodus reading stir the listening heart. When I listen to the recording, over which I had very little influence, I'm proud to have written and/or arranged the music that washes over me.

Looking over the liner notes, I notice again that the choir reads like a Who's Who of the pastoral music field — Jeff Honoré, Jaime Cortez, Paul Hillebrand, Mike Wieser, John Flaherty — among others, sang on the recording. The same amazing string section that played on Vision played on SL, the string faculty of ASU including the longtime conductor and concertmaster, Eugene Lombardi. Paula Wolak, Tom Kendzia's sister-in-law and a brilliant engineer, engineered the recording, and her friend Tom "Blue" Mortenson played pedal steel on "You". My friends Mark and Carol Mellis played woodwinds, including Mark's soprano sax playing on the Exodus reading, and the great Frank Smith played tenor "Litany of Deliverance." The rhythm section was Beth Lederman, Tim Downs, and Jon Murray, aided by Todd Chuba on percussion and Gary Daigle on guitars.

The songs

You/Psalm 65. Psalm 65 just comes around once every three years on Sunday, on the day when the parable of the sower comes up as the gospel. I wanted to write a psalm setting that drew attention to the sower in the parable, hence, the simple title "You," and the repetition of the word throughout the paraphrase of the psalm. The antiphon given in the lectionary, "The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest," in my view hides the central truth of the parable, which is that the Sower is so abundant with the sowing. The sower throws that seed everywhere! That the gospel writer goes on to give an allegorical interpretation to the parable is undeniable, but its quite likely that the interpretation is not the point that Jesus tried to make in the telling. The lyric quote at the beginning of this blog entry is the first stanza and refrain of "You." Aside from its use again on Terry's 2003 album Family Resemblance, this was the only time we've used pedal steel guitar on one of our recordings.

Live the Promise. I was asked to write the theme song for the 1994 Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles. The congress that year was held on the first Sunday of Lent in a B (Mark) year, with a first reading about the covenant with Noah and the flood (Gen. 9: 8-17). The theme of the conference was "Live the Promise/Viva la Promesa," and they wanted the theme in the song lyrics. It is a huge privilege to be able to write the theme for this conference, when 20,000 people or more will be singing and praying this song for a whole weekend and beyond. There's hardly a better experience for a songwriter than to hear a great orchestra and an enthusiastic assembly filling the Anaheim Ducks arena praying your song with such fervor!

I chose the style of a spiritual to write in, with a lot of repetition in the lyric for easy of memorization. I also tried to use imagery that was evocative, since the imagery of the rainbow implied "looking up to the sky," and the theme of promise urged a "looking beyond" the trials of the present toward a better world in the reign of God. Hence the invitation to see the covenant as God, too, taking a new path:

  • "O God, you were a warrior, but you set your bow in the sky..."
  • "Wandering in the desert when your cloud appeared in the sky..."
  • "Searching for a savior when your star appeared in the sky..."
  • "There's a battle in the family, there's a hole of death in the sky..."

Whatever the difficulty, however impossible the situation, past, present, or future, there is hope in solidarity around God's promise.

Psalm 34 for Weddings: Every Morning in Your Eyes. I wrote this for our friends' Mary Beth and Mike Hirte's wedding, on my birthday, in May of 1993. It's been used at a lot of weddings since then. In the publication notes, I gave some background on my paraphrase of Psalm 34 that was suggested by my friend and mentor John Gallen's (S.J.) insights on Psalm 34 and the Eucharist. He taught that for the Jewish imagination, "the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord," literally, because everything is made from God's self. While this notion sparkles around in the psalms, it is probably nowhere clearer than when the psalmist says in Psalm 34, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord," that is, dive into the experience of God by means of your senses. To experience creation is to experience the Creator.

Now, bring that insight into the wedding liturgy, into the union of lovers. It's not a surprise, really. We just didn't know what we were experiencing before we were told!
Every morning in your eyes, all my life,
I will bless God always, ever near,
Near as you, my friend.
Taste and see, touch and hear,
The faithful love of God.
Vespers Triptych

  • Lively Light (Phos Hilaron)
  • Psalm 141: Only Empty Hands
  • "Winter" Magnificat* (Morning Song)
Probably the previous year at the LAREC Gary, Terry, and I were asked to do Evening Prayer one night, which is simultaneous to some of the eucharistic liturgies to give people an option. These three little pieces I wrote or arranged for that event. "Lively Light" is an adaptation of the Phos Hilaron, an ancient hymn for the beginning of Vespers for the lamplighting. I wanted to suggest a slightly modern take on the hymn, that even though we are beginning evening prayer, there are other people in the world just waking up. Light is indeed lively!
Lively light, light to cheer,
Sign of God-among-us here,
Light from ageless glory poured,
Radiant, splendid, Christ the Lord.
Daylight dims, reddens, fades;
Light we lights that hands have made.
Other voices greet the dawn,
Mingling morn and evensong.
Evening star, forge of days,
Worthy of the purest praise,
Timeless word and deathless flame,
All the worlds must know your name. 
(©1995 GIA Publications)
"Psalm 141: Only Empty Hands" is a darker take (no pun intended) on the traditional vespers psalm. In the reading that I did in preparation, what seemed clearer to me than anything was that there is a lot in the ancient versions of the psalm that is unknown, untranslatable bits and fragments that translators have just had to guess at. Another thing I thought was that other settings seemed to miss the literal darkness within the psalmist: this is a person in trouble. I thought of Elijah in the wilderness, sought by Jezebel, or David when he was being hunted by Saul. The singer wants to pray in the temple but can't, is unable to show his face. He wants to offer incense, but can't. It's not just a wish to "let my prayer rise like incense," it's a matter of necessity. So that's what I tried to capture in the music.

I also experimented with form. Rather than use verse-refrain form like most versions I know of the psalm, the antiphon here is sung just at the beginning and end. The verses are call-and-response, with simple melodic ideas that mostly repeat melodically what the cantor has sung, or, as in the second half, the assembly leads the cantor after hearing the melody of its lines intoned by the accompaniment. I really wish this version had gotten a better hearing, but I suspect that the fact that it is a metric paraphrase and not an authorized translation is an impediment to wider usage, especially where people actually sing vespers!

Finally there is Sister Miriam Therese Winter's bold Magnificat, "My soul gives glory to my God," which springs from her feminist heart with the proclamation, "My God has done great things for me, Holy is her name!" I used the tune MORNING SONG, often used with the Advent hymn "The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns," to set her text, and did a simple choral arrangement with piano and flute accompaniment.

Building a City is a song I wrote for my eldest son Joel's graduation. It's just a pop song with as much love and hope as I could write into it, using his class's graduation theme as the starting point.

Exodus Reading for the Great Vigil. I wrote about this in a blog entry about my various musical contributions for the Easter Vigil. You can see more about that by reading here. I'm grateful for those of you who have tried this over the years. My work in the North American Forum on the Catechumenate let me offer this as a workshop piece around the country and in Canada, and it was generally received with great enthusiasm. This is possibly the best known song of mine on this recording, though it only gets used (at most) once a year!

Carol of the Stranger. I wrote this song at Terry's house in St. Louis one day when she was at work. This was the first time we recorded it, and we re-recorded it on Terry's 1998 Christmas CD, On Christmas Day in the Morning. On this recording, the first and last stanzas were sung by my eleven-year-old (then) daughter, Claire. It's twenty years hence; you can do the math! The text exploits the surprising presence of Christ in the stranger: a newborn child, a lover, the needy, catechumens, and its final stanza focuses on the word "welcome," as if to say, "Whoever you are, we are here. It's a tough life, but we'll help you become who you were meant to be."
Welcome, tiny stranger, to hunger and frost,
To armored invaders, to paradise lost.
Come join in the vigil for which you were born:
Keep watch through the darkness, and welcome the morn.
Welcome, welcome, welcome! (© 1995 GIA Publications)
Litany of Deliverance was intended by me as an option for the prayer of scrutiny during Lent, on those Sundays when the scrutinies are celebrated with the elect. The setting is in a blues style, a departure for me and certainly for the liturgy most of time! I tried not to pull any punches in the litany of sins from which we are all longing to be rescued, and the refrain "Deliver us, O God! Listen to your people! Deliver us, O God" is repeated more and more insistently through the song. 

I do see that it would be more appropriate if there were some intercession for enlightenment in the invocations as well, a lack which I remedied in a later Litany for the Scrutinies that appeared in our 2006 collection, Today. However, the shortcomings of the text can easily be remedied by creative music directors working with their RCIA teams. It was meant to be a flexible form, after all!

Hard Times, Come Again No More** This is the famous Stephen Foster song, which I arranged for our trio to be able to sing for concerts a capella. Nothing too fancy, just an homage to a great songwriter and a song that we all have in our hearts at one time or another. It has always been a great pleasure, not to mention a privilege, to be able to make music with Terry and Gary before audiences and congregations here as well as in England and Ireland. When we can sing a song like this, whose words and music express so touchingly the human condition, it feels like being a part of a great river of song whose source is the creation, and to which David, and Homer, and rhapsodes and bards of every age have contributed. Thanks be to God, that has been part of our calling as well. And it feels like we have a few more years left in us.

I sure hope so! (Stony Landscapes page on the GIA website, for sheet music and CDs.)

*Text by Sr. Miriam Therese Winter, MMS
**Music and lyrics by Stephen Foster, arranged by RC